Cheap drugs, cheap whores and cheap beers. That’s usually what comes to mind when Americans think about Tijuana. The Mexican border town is almost a four-letter word in the American lexicon. For decades, tales of debauchery, violence and unadulterated mystery have shaped the narrative we hold of Tijuana.
That makes it all the more odd that we didn’t really feel out of place when we spent five days in the city covering Club Tijuana Xolos during the first leg of our four month journey to Brazil. That’s not because we are ribaldrous spirits who look for trouble at any turn. Rather, it’s because we found Tijuana to be a pretty welcoming city.
Are there problems? Certainly. The “El Bordo” canal area is filled with scores of homeless deportees who are almost all addicted to hard narcotics such as heroin. (See: VICE on ‘El Bordo’) Then there is the Zona Norte, a booze-fueled nightlife section of the city that’s a favorite haunt for pickpockets, robbers and other shady after hours crowds.
However, there are certainly some major American cities where similar comparisons can be drawn. Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit are a few that come to mind.
The perception that Tijuana is a haven of vice where everyone is out to get you is hardly accurate, as we found out. And Los Xolos, a 7-year-old football club that calls Tijuana home has helped facilitate a change in how Tijuana is perceived across the border.
In literally a matter of minutes, you can cross on foot into Mexico from San Ysidro, a town just 15 minutes south of San Diego. Do you need to show a passport? Probably not. Do you need to talk to a border guard? Probably not. Do you need to wait in a long line? Probably not. The fact that the border is so easy for gringos to cross has helped attract soccer-loving souls from San Diego to Tijuana’s Estadio Caliente to get their footie fix.
A vibrant match-day atmosphere and a welcoming pre-game parking lot that isn’t too dissimilar to an American college football tailgate (swap Bud Light for Tecate) are enough to make anyone from north of the border feel at home.
According to Alex Riggins, a journalist and close follower of Xolos from San Diego who was raised in the States but is of Mexican decent, the club entered the consciousness of San Diegans during a stirring run to the Mexican Apertura title in 2012. Since then, the floodgates have opened and Xolos are just as much San Diego’s team as Tijuana’s.
It’s a rosy story of cross-cultural melding that isn’t too common with football nowadays. However, for avid MLS fans, it’s not exactly a good sign. When we asked Riggins if an MLS team would be successful in the lucrative and untapped market of San Diego, he responded without hesitation: “No”. Simply put, Xolos is too big of a brand on both sides on the border.
While that’s an opportunity missed for America’s top domestic league, the story of Tijuana Xolos is one that encapsulates the Mexico-United States soccer dynamic while also helping the much maligned border town reshape its reputation abroad.
For some, the press coverage that Xolos receives may seem a bit contrived and romantic. However, the fact is that the club is attracting scores of white-skinned, blonde-haired gringos from SoCal to Tijuana for something other than vice. And that alone is a story worth telling.
In truth, Tijuana isn’t too different than any other major city, as long as you have your wits about you and don’t do anything foolish. As Lee Bosch, one of our interview subjects and TJ resident noted, it’s a case of knowing where to go and where not to go.
“There are areas you want to avoid, but if you do you should have a good time,” he said. “It’s a lot like any other city.”
A lot like any other city, plus a football club with a truly unique story.
We’re thrilled to have experienced it and are excited to share the tale of Tijuana’s club without borders with you in a few months.